There was a time—kind of a long time, actually—when the art of being a pop star was the art of knowing how to make people come to you. The deployment of mystique in interacting with the public was as important as the chords and the words in the songs that made them pay attention in the first place. But the mystique era is over.
Because the difference between putting out a record and not putting out a record is increasingly minimal, the job of the musician involves a lot more secondary source material than it used to—and it used to involve quite a bit. Where once a singer could release a single, a video, and a few official interviews, the job now involves a broader kind of availability, not only after the show, for endless selfies by the merch table, but all the time, to read and respond to @replies on their Twitter feed, to do podcast interviews that might not necessarily sync up with the album cycle, and to create the additional, often free stuff—EPs, bonus tracks, remixes, covers—that has made a lot of smart, good-hearted people simply surrender to thinking of as "content." Occasional ubiquity was always the pop musician's goal, but the price of achieving it just keeps inflating.
One way certain career artists have begun to address this phenomenon, in somewhat surprising numbers, is the memoir. Though both recording and publishing are famously (allegedly) dying industries, it seems to be a seller's market for rock-star autobiographies. In the past few years, since the twin watersheds of Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One (2004) and Keith Richards's Life (2010), we've had great and good star memoirs from Patti Smith, Pete Townshend, Morrissey, Jay-Z, Nile Rodgers, and just this year, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde, John Lydon, and Elvis Costello. Lesser-known but intensely-loved cult artists like Kristin Hersh, Dean Wareham, Viv Albertine, Marc Everett, Ben Watt, and Juliana Hatfield have also made memorable contributions to the canon. (And of course, there has been the usual ghosted airport litter from figures like Anthony Kiedis, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Scott Weiland whose lives are plainly glamorous, but whose main appeal does not consist of a capacity for insightful reflection.)
The rule with books about rock stars is that the best of them made it not matter whether you cared about the music made by the subject. This is why the earth will freeze before anyone improves on Neil Strauss's Mötley Crüe dissertation, The Dirt, which grabbed the baton from Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods, which in turn had wrested it from Danny Sugerman and Jerry Hopkins's No One Here Gets Out Alive, and Tony Sanchez's Up and Down with the Rolling Stones. But those are all books in which third-party observers codified bands into legend, which is, still the main reason music journalism exists, for good and ill.
Autobiography operates on a different mechanism, because while you hardly expect or want Keith Richards to come off as humble, you also don't need Bob Dylan flying off into reveries about his own significance. The best rock memoirs are attempts to reconcile the original impulse for picking up the guitar or grabbing the mic with the onslaught of compromised glory that followed, while allowing a coded glimpse behind the artist's veil of self-awareness. Dylan and Richards, like most of the people named above, always excelled at enigma maintenance, letting the songs and the audience speculation they inspired stand in for personal revelation. (This is why Morrissey's Autobiography was a far more thrilling prospect than Townshend's Who I Am—the former author made elusiveness into his secondary art form, while the latter has been telling anyone who would listen everything he thinks for 50 years.)
What's new about the recent crop, and about all artist memoir in the age of oversharing, is the the world they are being released into. A readership long since accustomed to knowing every dirty little secret about every celebrity, is unlikely to be that impressed when a once-reticent singer coyly discloses his/her sexual preferences, or offers the real story behind a given song.
Fans certainly want to know those things, but fandom has been balkanized. The wider appeal promised by these books is the parted curtain; not so much the facts (though, we'll take them, too) as the sharing of what the authors are really like when they're alone. The privacy of the private sphere is often the last asset rock stars can mortgage to keep their fame, and their publishing catalogs, in circulation, and the memoir is the current delivery device of choice for people who used to be able to communicate exclusively through records.
This device is complicated—some would argue enhanced, others diminished—by the increasing popularity of the audiobook (aka the kind of book you can "read" while you're driving, or exercising, or... looking at Facebook). Now the very artists who are stooping to tell you what they are really like can read their accounts directly to you. The effect can be powerful.
On the page, Patti Smith's much-celebrated Just Kids struck me as burdened by poetic aspirationalism—though her music is guttural and plainspoken rock, she is the kind of prose writer who never saw a face she couldn't turn into a "visage." Spoken in her laconic Jersey drawl, the verbal pretenses are contextualized, assimilated, forgiven, in much the same way that to be in a room with Smith is to understand the word "beatific," and to get why people have been lining up to revere her for 40 years.
Likewise Kim Gordon, whose Girl in a Band is a very different spin on the romance of the artist's life. Aside from the revelation that she dated Danny Elfman in high school (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), the book is short on sordid disclosure and long on access to Gordon's impressions of the post-punk downtown NYC art milieu that gave rise to Sonic Youth. But when she gets down to saying how she feels about the breakup of her marriage to longtime collaborator Thurston Moore, Gordon is frank and blunt. Hearing those words spoken into your ear by her heavy-lidded, slightly-side-essed voice, pitched somewhere between hypnotic and monotonous, makes the experience feel like an unearned confidence. Not that you don't accept it, of course. The commodity on offer, beyond the book (which is good), or the gossip (which is sad but also good), is Gordon's willingness to emerge from behind the veil of coolness. Hearing it in her voice makes this transaction all the more irresistible.
Of all the books in this current bunch, Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is by far the most writerly, the most concise, the most intentional about what it will and will not disclose in its effort to construct a cogent narrative. Given that, and the way she describes the (sometimes hysterical) theatrical prepossessions of her youth, It makes sense that her performance on the audiobook would be the most fastidious, the most rehearsed, the most perfect. That's not to say it isn't also a pleasure to listen to (just as the book is a pleasure to read). It just means the terms of the interaction are clearly defined.
Unsurprisingly, Elvis Costello's reading of his Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is the least uncharacteristic exercise in self-narration, partly because his artistic relationship with persona has been central to his long, almost preposterously varied career. He's also the most naturally gifted anecdotalist of the recent group as well as the one with the easiest knack for theatrical modulation. Over the course of 18 hours and 40 minutes (for 670 pages), he guides us through his masterfully structured life story in a series of brisk larks, wry insinuations, stage whispers, and, when called for, sotto voce confessions of wickedness. If these vocal tricks allow him to get away with a certain blurriness at crucial moments—lapsing into excerpts from an autobiographical short story he wrote long ago to indicate his state of mind at especially grim times is a recurring gambit—they also allow him to demonstrate his astonishing gift for not merely self-revelation, but revelation of the self. He is also uncommonly excellent at conveying the thrills and doldrums of actually writing and recording music. This does the welcome job of steering readers/listeners back into his vast catalog of albums and songs—which, one suspects, was Costello's true motive for writing the book to begin with. If he has learned one thing in his almost 40-year career it's how to stop refusing to give people what they want while never fully surrendering the mystery that keeps us coming back. For the devout Costello deep-diver (guilty), the audiobook of Unfaithful Music—despite and because of the unflattering tones he reserves for us in it—is practically sacramental.
It's telling that this trend was kick-started, albeit discursively, by the 23-hour-long audiobook version of Keith Richards's Life. It's hard enough to imagine Richards doing anything for 23 hours in a row, much less wheezing aloud through his own book, so the publishers broke the job up. Johnny Depp does the first few hours, and is then replaced by actor Joe Hurley for the bulk of the remainder, before returning for an hour toward the end. Keith himself reads the last 45 minutes or so. Of course, neither actor can resist the urge to do a Keith Richards impersonation throughout, partly because the prose is so vivid and partly because... well, Keith's Keithness is the whole point of the project to begin with. This is why the pleasures of Chrissie Hynde's Reckless (audiobook read by Rosanna Arquette), John Lydon's Anger Is an Energy (Derek Perkins), and of course, Dylan's Chronicles (Sean Penn) are confined to the page. There are obviously worse things you can say about a book, I know.
HOWEVER, I've listened to the whole 23-hour recording of Life at least five times, and eagerly anticipate doing so again.
I can't say the same about Richards's recent solo album.